Perhaps nothing in sports is more perplexing than the United States Football League, which begins its third season this weekend.
In one sense, the USFL deserves our antipathy because it epitomizes so many of the least appetizing trends in sport in the past quarter century. In an era in which we often seem to have too many teams, too many sports, too many lawsuits, too many complex issues, the USFL may be the ultimate anomaly and annoyance: a pro football league that plays during baseball season.
On the other hand, the USFL also deserves our grudging respect. Because of its persistence, NFL players are finally beginning to get the salaries they have deserved for years. Just as free agency forced major league baseball into a fairer distribution of wealth, so competition from the USFL has nudged NFL owners into giving many a deserving offensive lineman his share of the pie.
The irrational sports fan in us -- that part of us which wants to go back to the simplicity of the world of games as it was in 1959 -- would like to forget the USFL.
Who needs another 14 professional sports teams -- entities called the San Antonio Gunslingers and the Memphis Showboats -- we moan. Isn't our sports calendar cluttered enough already with 26 major league baseball teams, 28 NFL teams, 23 NBA clubs, 21 NHL franchises and 14 teams in that pestilential indoor soccer league?
No better symbol of the USFL -- and the aggravating confusion it breeds -- could be found than the league's champions, the Stars.
Last season, they were the Philadelphia Stars. Now, they are called the Baltimore Stars, although they will not really play a game in Baltimore until the fall of 1986. This year, it might be more fitting to call them the Washington Stars since they will play their home games in Byrd Stadium on the University of Maryland campus.
Of course, it might be confusing to call them the Washington Stars; somebody might mistake them for the USFL team that played in RFK last year, the Federals. Those Federals are now the Orlando Renegades.
Got that straight?
Though it's easy to knock the USFL, it's also hard to ignore the useful purpose that it serves. This country's colleges -- which are, in effect, the minor leagues of football -- produce far more quality football players than the NFL can absorb. If the USFL can provide 700 more pro football jobs, who is to say that it's evil? How can we cheer on Saturdays for dozens of college powerhouses, then say that Sunday's pro football wars should provide a livelihood for only a fraction of those players once they finish four years of college eligibility?
The USFL epitomizes many of the problems of pro sports in microcosm -- mammoth litigation, a threatened player strike, wild franchise movement and for the moment, a season that seems, to say the least, untimely.
The league has initiated the biggest sports lawsuit in history -- a $1.3 billion antitrust action against the NFL. Just days ago, a strike was averted. Four franchises have folded since last season and three others have moved. One current team -- the Los Angeles Express -- is being propped up by the league and another -- the Houston Gamblers -- has the promise of league support if it needs it to stay afloat.
Just as the league's past is kaleidoscopic, its future is almost totally uncertain. At the moment, the league plans to play its games in the fall in 1986, but, if a good TV contract came, some owners say they'd be willing to continue on a spring schedule.
As if this weren't enough, the USFL has, in a sense, spoiled our fun as fans by luring away two of the most interesting college players of recent years, Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie. These young men are now millionaires, but, for the time being, they have given up any hope of continuing their odysseys as athletic folk heroes. As college players, they were giants -- real national figures. As professionals in a struggling league, they are -- or will probably soon become -- fellows of merely mortal stature. Could Walker have become as good in the NFL as O.J. Simpson? Could Flutie have scrambled as well as Fran Tarkenton? We may never know. Any records they set in the early years of the USFL will be as meaningless as marks set in the early 1960s in the AFL.
Both Walker and Flutie could have been NFL millionaires. Instead, they chose to be USFL multimillionaires. Their decisions were not wrong; they just weren't heroic. By taking the money over the challenge of athletic greatness at the highest available level of competition, they moved back into the pack with the rest of us.
Of course, Julius Erving once took the ABA's money and still lived to carve his name across the NBA's sky. So, someday, Walker or Flutie may be back in the center of our consciousness.
As this USFL season begins, what should we wish for this pesky, gutsy league that has battled the NFL longer and better than many thought possible?
First, let's hope that, by 1986, the USFL will be playing football in football season. Surely any kind of football league has a better chance of catching our eye and winning our heart when the leaves are on the ground than when they are just returning to the trees. In bucking the rhythms of the seasons and the ingrained tastes of a lifetime, the USFL may be tackling a tougher foe than the NFL.
Second, since the NFL is almost certainly going to expand eventually, why not wish some of the stronger USFL teams luck in achieving a merger with the NFL. That way, all will end well. The NFL's salary structure will be forced up as it should have been years ago. Players like Walker and Flutie will get a chance to show their worth while still in their primes.
In our moments of pique, we may wish the sports world, like our larger world, would slow down and return to what seemed like sweeter, simpler times.
But that never happens. So we must swallow billion-dollar lawsuits and pinball franchises and try to keep up with Heisman Trophy winners playing football games in baseball season. It's probably progress, though sometimes it certainly doesn't seem that way.